Music of the American Dream (part 3)

Into modern times
Since the war, America, in common with the rest of the Western musical world, has seen a vast proliferation of styles. John Cage (1912-92) revolutionised many aspects of music-making in his multi-media spectaculars. At a performance of Roaratorio (1979), for example, one wanders around the hall at leisure, focusing in on half-heard Irish musicians, readings from Joyce and a tape composition. At the opposite extreme, the silent work 4’33” (1952) allows the audience to tune into ambient noise undistracted by any activity from the musicians themselves.

Cage was as must a philosopher of music as a composer; Elliot Carter (1908-2012), on the other hand, represents the very core of post-war activity, drawing on both the Paris style of the 1920s, so attractive to Copland, and the atonal idiom of Schoenberg and the serialists. He found a way of wedding a densely-thematic style with highly accessible surface gestures in masterpieces such as the First Spring Quartet (1951), one of the most appealing instrumental works of the post-war years.

Carter represents a complex vision of music which has been challenged by the ‘minimalism’ of Steve Reich (b1936), Terry Riley (b1935) and Philip Glass (b1937). Riley’s seminal work In C (1964), in its title alone, challenges the music establishment to ‘boldly go’ into new musical territories divested of all the clutter of European tradition. In the minimalist works of Reich and others, melodic fragments are endlessly repeated with subtle shifts in rhythm resulting in the loss of synchronisation between performers. From the next generation, John Adams (b1947) picked up many of Reich’s methods, but reflects a late twentieth-century upsurge of romanticism in works like Harmonium (1981) and the glorious Shaker Loops (1978), both of which reject the relative austerity of Reich and his peers.

Since it emerged from centuries of European domination, American music has been extraordinarily successful in almost all fields, producing fine symphonies, operas and chamber music. Identifying the qualities that make all this music American in character is no easier than defining the Englishness of Elgar. Part of it is the bold directness of expression so often favoured, which one feels can only stem from a new country. Another is the unforced simplicity of utterance of composers such as Copland, or the naïve pleasure in melody of Chadwick, even when he’s at his most Brahmsian. Another still is the sheer energy of so much of this music: listen to the opening of Chadwick’s ‘Jubilee’.

One never knows from which direction the next generation’s music will come, whether it will be the pioneering spirit of Cowell, the experimental romanticism of Ives, or the intellectual rigour of Carter. It is this diversity and often inextricable influence of the American landscape and indigenous (or imported) cultures that will most assuredly ensure the health and popularity of American music for many years to come.

Classic CD magazine, 1995

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